A precautionary and compassionate approach

As the deaths and number of confirmed infections of the virus originally known as 2019-ncov and now named novel corona virus surges around the world, scientists are scrambling to figure out the virus’ qualities and find a vaccine to this scourge. The death toll continues to rise with a total number of confirmed cases worldwide at more than 17,000 with nearly 400 fatalities as of first week of February, and present in dozens of countries. Last February 2, Philippine health officials reported the second infection and first death in the country, the first fatality outside China.

The virus is characterized as a super-spreader, with the number of infections skyrocketing in so short a time. With so much uncertainty surrounding the nature and characteristics of the ncov, it is understandable people are panicking and extreme measures to stem the spread of infections have been implemented. The Chinese authorities have instituted draconian measures, locking down Wuhan, a city of 11 million, which is unprecedented. That lockdown has been extended to several cities and regions in China and countries are scrambling to evacuate their citizens out of Wuhan in emergency airlifts. In the meantime, airlines are suspending flights to and from Wuhan and even in the whole of China.

On the local front, the Philippine government has been criticized for its insipid, sluggish and indecisive response in the early days of the outbreak. The president initially refused to impose a travel ban, saying “it would not be fair to China.” Echoing his superior, Health Secretary Duque warned that banning Chinese tourists may have serious “political and diplomatic repercussions.” Because of lack of travel restrictions, a flight from Xiamen with more than 50 passengers was allowed to land in Davao and some 778 Chinese passengers of a cruise ship allowed to disembark in the port of Manila. Despite these obvious missteps, the government has finally issued a travel ban to and from China, and measures are in place to arrest the spread of the virus. Better late than never.

While disagreeing with his initial actions, I  generally support Secretary Francisco Duque, whom I have worked with, and his team of professionals in the DOH. My only advice to them is to be completely transparent as they need to be above all credible during these times. There is much to disclose for example on the first death reported.

Given our limitations, it is best to adapt the precautionary approach by formulating a blueprint of and implementing preventive measures to address the potential of widespread infection. It must be a collective effort entrusted not solely to health officials but to everybody from the highest levels of government to the lowest, including barangay officials.

The opposition and private sector must be harnessed to its fullest. The President should stop attacking his perceived enemies and business leaders, many of whom like MVP, the Ayalas, and Lopezes  are already at the forefront of the response to the Taal disaster and this virus scare.

Purveyors of fake news should be stopped at all costs. Fake news, as Secretary Duque puts it – is more viral than the virus, causes people to panic into making irrational decisions which do more harm than good to themselves and the public in general.

The precautionary approach is most suited when scientific uncertainty is most acute, like what we are seeing now with this potential pandemic. We do not know how long this will last, whether or not the contagion will subside and the virus exhaust itself like in previous epidemics such as SARS, Merscov, swine flu or ebola, or what treatments it will respond to.

Precaution must be complemented by a compassionate approach. Specifically, we must also fight hard to suppress a natural tendency to discriminate against the stranger, in this case Chinese nationals –  simply because they belong to the at-most risk group. Derisive looks, hurtful comments, or maligning any ethnic or nationality group for its own sake is dehumanizing not only to the discriminated but more so to the one discriminating.

Let me be clear that banning flights and ships, and foreigners (without specifying ethnicities and nationalities) coming from places with many actual and potential infections is not racist or discriminatory but is consistent with the precautionary approach.

Let me also be clear that it is the Duterte government’s actions – from surrendering the West Philippine Sea to allowing Chinese workers in online gambling which has displaced many Filipinos, and promoted sex trafficking and criminal activities and now in its original response to the Wuhan virus where the government seemed more afraid to displease the Chinese than ensuring public health – that has led to this state of wise spread racism and discrimination, even by people who should know better. 

Many Filipinos feel compelled, to hit back against Chinese mainlanders and since we are not able to distinguish between mainlanders and Chinese Filipinos (and Koreans, Singaporeans, etc.), the discrimination has become universal. This is wrong in my view because racism under any circumstances is wrong and because it will come back to bite us given that to the outside world we are all Chinese-looking, i.e. orientals.

There is also that failed effort of pro-Duterte troll farms to elicit sympathy for the Chinese by flooding social media platforms with silly sob stories, which in turn elicited a massive response of even sillier and non sequitur stories. Some people, who I would otherwise consider cosmopolitan, well-traveled and well-read, and definitely would not have imagined as racist, joined in that response, spontaneous for sure but led by a core group of influencers.

I unequivocally think that this was not the right response to the pro-Chinese troll. It devalues real suffering that is happening because of the Wuhan virus. The analogy is the boy who cried wolf. There is real suffering but it is disbelieved when the Duterte trolls use it for political purposes. And the response also disregarded the fact that the virus has in fact caused untold suffering to many Chinese persons and families and has the potential to do that to us as well.

People who suffer need kindness, not derision. While compassion is the language of God, as Pope Francis so often say, hatred is the weapon of the devil.

Let’s all step back, please and be precautionary and compassionate.

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